Great Artists Steal or How to Learn from the Masters

Great Artists Steal or How to Learn from the Masters

T.S. Eliot famously wrote, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

What did Eliot mean by this seemingly outrageous assertion? He wasn’t talking about plagiarism, which would be directly quoting or copying exactly another artist’s work. What he was talking about is recognizing great ideas, great techniques, great tools and making them your own.

When you borrow something, it doesn’t belong to you. When you steal, it becomes yours, a part of your unique artistic style.

How To Steal and Make It Your Own

  • You observe closely. Take note of exactly what the artist is doing that makes their work so powerful and effective. What is the shape and weight of the line? How do they create that shading effect? Where are the line breaks in the poem? How is metaphor used? What is the structure of the musical piece? What is unusual about the harmony, the melody? Most of all, what is it you like so much about it?
  • Man playing piano

    by Francisco Gomes on Unsplash

    You start by copying. Many student artists are given the assignment to reproduce a great work of art. Many musicians learn to play note-for-note the solos that great performers improvised. This is phenomenal training. If you can pull it off, as closely as possible, you will learn an enormous amount about how to make a great work of art.

    And, significantly, you will learn it in your body. As your hand attempts to create the exact curve and delicacy of line of a Michelangelo sketch, your body engages in deep learning about beauty, art and drawing. When you learn something in your body, as opposed to just consuming information in your mind, you truly learn it. It becomes a part of you.

  • You adapt what you love to your own art. Once you’ve learned the techniques and embodied them, you return to your own voice and aesthetic, your unique expression, enriched with a powerful palette. Now, your job is to find exciting, inventive, imaginative ways to use those tools and techniques to express what is uniquely you. Now it is time to be authentic, to say what you need to say, while using what you’ve learned works to make extraordinary art.

    The brilliant editor Shawn Coyne [visit his site Storygrid.com for loads of free, useful information] talks about the importance of including in your writing the “obligatory scenes” and “conventions” of whatever genre you are writing in. He stresses that a story won’t “work” for readers without these scenes and conventions. For instance, the thriller genre must include a scene of the “hero at the mercy of the villain.” And yet, he adds, the challenge and the art is to create those obligatory scenes and satisfy those conventions of the genre in new and surprising ways.

Learn By Copying

I once typed up all of Salinger’s masterful short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” so I could feel what it took to write a great short story. I learned so much about how the story was made, even though I had read it many times before. For example, I was surprised to discover how much of the story is dialogue.

I got the idea to type Salinger’s story from the great Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. Bartok copied by hand all of Beethoven’s string quartets before writing one of his own, so he knew what it would feel like to write a great quartet. Time-consuming, painstaking work. The result:  He wrote six magnificent string quartets of his own that sound nothing like Beethoven.

When You Need Inspiration, Look Around You

Artist at desk

by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash

As a graphic designer, when I needed a great idea for a new client or project, I would start by looking at other designs—on book covers, coffee cans, posters—and also in nature and all around me. I would look for colors, shapes, ideas that jumped out at me. And I would steal: That use of layout, those wonderful colors, that arrow highlighting an important element.

Sometimes I practiced reproducing a layout exactly, so I could learn how to do it. I’d often have to discover new uses of tools on my computer.

But my designs were my own. I stole elements and great ideas from other designers, but not whole designs. In this way, I expanded my palette as a designer and didn’t get stuck in ruts.

I often practice writing poems and stories, modeling the style, voice and/or exact forms of other poets. This is a way of apprenticing myself to them and getting new ideas, new possibilities.

My students worry that if they do this, they will sound too much like some other writer. My feeling is that you would be very fortunate indeed if you manage to create something truly reminiscent of some famous writer. In the process, you will be becoming a better writer. And then, you can use that knowledge to sound more like yourself. 

Become an Apprentice

If you want to be great, study the masters. Artists apprentice themselves to great artists in order to learn, to grow, to study their art and craft. David Levine wrote about this, “Shakespeare routinely stole plotlines and even whole scenes from other writers for his own plays.” Remember, stealing means making it your own, not just direct imitation.

Austin Kleon wrote a wonderfully inspiring, helpful, wise and fun book that leaps off from this idea of theft as being important to the creation of art. His book is called Steal Like An Artist. I recommend it highly.

What artist will you commit to studying in depth and stealing from today?

In my next post, I’ll give you a specific “stealing” assignment, a creative prompt based on the work of another artist, for you to use as a jumping off place. Stay tuned!

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  1. Scenes from the Past: A Creativity Prompt - Brilliant Playground October 24, 2017 (11:02 pm)

    […] In my post last week, I shared with you how to get inspiration and training by copying the masters of your art form and translating what you learn to your own unique style. If you missed that, click here for Great Artists Steal or How to Learn from the Masters. […]

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